ACA Blog

Ray McKinnis
Oct 26, 2011

Three Metaphors All Counselors Use

At the beginning of a web seminar on counseling couples, a nationally known presenter said that only after she discarded everything she had learned in graduate school about counseling couples was she able to be effective in counseling couples.

I understood what she was saying. But I also wondered why. The curriculum was well thought out; the instructors were sincere and knowledgeable; and I was always a diligent student trying to get everything I could out of each course. So what was wrong?

The 3 metaphors of ethical thinking which I have written about previously offered me a possible understanding. These 3 metaphors were first advanced by the Yale ethicist H. Richard Niebuhr as a way of understanding more comprehensively what guides ethical thinking. They struck me as also involved in the way we as counselors do our thing.

Much misunderstanding, suspicion and, dare I say, ill-will arises from the fact that different counselors choose one or the other to guide their practice as well as to evaluate the theory and practice of others. I believe that by making explicit these three metaphors and showing how they guide our research and practice, we can gain a greater appreciation of each other as counselors as well as of our own processes. Each of these metaphors is used as a kind of synecdoche; that is, one activity of human life is used to explain and guide what we are doing when we do counseling.

These three metaphors I will call: 1. The Legal Metaphor; 2. The Artisan Metaphor; 3. The Dialogue Metaphor.

When someone uses the legal metaphor, they are guided by the process involved in making laws. That is, 1. First of all, there is some authority. This authority may come from the counseling profession with the reference to ‘evidence based’ curriculums or therapists who develop an approach which they claim as the authority must be followed precisely. 2. This authority, then, sets up rules or a curriculum whose creators claim may not be modified because is it called ‘evidence based’. The rules may come as a set of regulations for working with a client set up by an organization one works for or they may come from someone giving a particular theory or practice of counseling. I remember my course in counseling techniques gave us a list of techniques which were the ones we were supposed to use; others were to be avoided—the consequence was a poor grade. 3. Following the legal metaphor, the counselor has only two choices: follow those rules or don’t follow them. 3. If the counselor does not follow them, they are liable to various disciplinary actions depending on the authority that established those rules.

This metaphor is often the metaphor of choice when non-counseling systems interact with the process of counseling. These other systems have their established rules which counselors must work under. Systems such as HMOs or other insurance entities; some clinics have established rules for the ways counselors must conduct themselves with a client; faith communities, whether they are Jewish, Catholic, protestant, Muslim, etc., have their faith-based rules. Counselors in such systems probably have to adopt a legal metaphor in their practice—they first of all must obey the rules of such systems.

In other words, authorities who must justify their decisions to others actions—such as HMOs and clinic directors—as well as those who have a particular counseling theory or practice are drawn to this metaphor. Just as laws are intended to help control us, so these rules are intended control our behavior a counselors.

Another advantage of this metaphor is that the use of these rules can be quantified, compared and reported on. It is a way of bypassing the need to determine how actually effective they are with clients. Thus in a monthly report one can say something like, “Three counselors used this ‘evidence-based’ anger management course 24 times with a total of 100 subjects attending.” Or “A total of 53 intakes were conducted last month.” Whether it was effective is not important when this metaphor is used—only how many times the rules were followed.

A few months ago I attended a 4 day workshop whose goal was to teach us a program which has won some support for use in prisons. By going through this program, prisoners were supposed to be better able to transition from prison to community living. Some 25 persons from different prison systems were there and I was impressed with their experience and dedication. I was looking forward to learning this program as well as learning from the experiences of some of these other participants. So the first day when one of the facilitators asked what we wanted to get out of this training, I said I would like to hear how others could use this program—and specifically how I could adapt it to the situation I would be working in.

The response was quick and firm that this was an ‘evidence-based’ program and if I were to change it in any way it would be a ‘Ray-based’ program. The program came with everything we were supposed to say and do—a script that we were to read, power points that we were to show and when to show them, exercises to be done and even the answers to questions we were to ask. Not only did her response irritate me because I felt like I was completely discounted, this version of this program that was being taught was a complete revision of the previous version with much added material. It had never been used before! It clearly was not ‘evidence based.’ But that was that was the authority which was invoked to justify obeying the curriculum exactly as printed. Anything else would be breaking the rules.

It was clear throughout the entire 4 days that the facilitators were being guided by the legal metaphor: here is the law to be followed, the authority for this is that it is ‘evidence-based’ and if you do not follow it, you are doing something wrong.

Rarely did this metaphor come up in my graduate school courses although it did in the ethics class when laws effecting counselors were explored—and that I consider appropriate.

However, it did come up in supervision when some of the students were in settings where they were given a manual to lead some group and they were to follow the manual exactly because it was called ‘evidence-based’. Also some students were in situations where those with higher authority were the authorities whose judgments and rules they were to follow.

Also, as I mentioned before, it also is used in counseling situations within a defined community such as a faith community. I have experienced Evangelical Christian counselors who tend to use a ‘legal’ metaphor to incorporate their religious morals into the counseling process. Since the community itself has defined morals, counseling in that context requires the adherence to those morals. Each community defines the authority which creates those morals as well as what happens if you disobey them, and how you can recover from disobeying them. In that context, the legal metaphor of counseling is often the major guiding metaphor for counseling.

You can sense that I don’t like this metaphor because it takes the power out of my hands and gives it to something or someone else. I realize the sometimes this metaphor is necessary but in general one of the other two metaphors should guide us as we counsel clients. I believe the power should ultimately be in the client and counseling guided by a legal metaphor even takes it away from me—all I can do in such a situation is either obey or disobey.

This is enough for this blog. In the next 2, I will explore the next two metaphors: counselor as artisan—which is the most common metaphor used in graduate school and the ACA code of ethics; and counselor in dialogue.

Ray McKinnis is a counselor with a special interest in 'spirituality beyond religion' and veterans 'beyond PTSD' with a website at

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